Good communication is the foundation of any healthy relationship. From spouses and romantic partners to supervisors and co-workers, the ability to communicate well is essential for a happy and effective relationship.
But poor communication can absolutely destroy a relationship. In particular, there are 3 types of toxic communication styles we can easily fall into—and if we’re not careful, they can poison even the healthiest of relationships.
In this article I’ll walk you through the three types of unhealthy communication—passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive communication—so you can learn to identify them in your own relationships and eliminate them before they do too much damage.
Then we’ll end on a high note by discussing assertiveness—the one communication style that is always healthy and productive no matter what the situation or relationship.
Passive Communication: When being nice backfires
As the middle child in a large and chaotic family, Jessica learned from an early age that playing nice and letting people have what they wanted kept her out of the limelight, and as a result, made her life less stressful and overwhelming. Unfortunately, while this strategy worked as a child, it was wreaking havoc on her relationships as an adult, especially with her new husband.
Jessica came to see me in therapy because she was feeling surges of anger and resentment toward her partner and didn’t know what to do. He was a nice guy and good to her, so she was alarmed and confused that she seemed to harbor increasingly strong feelings of anger toward him and then guilt toward herself.
When I asked Jessica to describe her relationship with her husband, it quickly became clear that she was a classic passive communicator—always deferring what she wanted and preferred in order to “be nice” and keep things running smoothly.
From what to watch on Netflix to where they went on vacation, Jessica almost always said she didn’t have a preference and went along with whatever her husband suggested.
Chronically ignoring your own wants and needs isn’t nice, it’s dishonest. And a fundamentally dishonest relationship will never work in the long-run.
Passive communication is when you ignore or mask the truth about how you feel or what you want, usually as a way to avoid conflict.
While passive communication often feels good in the moment because it makes you look self-sacrificing and generous (at least to yourself), it always fails in the long run because it’s fundamentally dishonest.
A relationship built on lies—even nice ones—will eventually fall apart. The passive communicator will inevitably become resentful because their needs aren’t being met. They’ll also feel guilty because, on some level, they know they should be honest.
The key to overcoming a passive communication style is to learn that your fear of conflict is overstated. You need to learn on a deep level that you can be honest about what you want and need and things will be okay.
Start small. Try expressing a preference in little things where you would normally just defer to someone else:
- Ask the waiter to move you to another table.
- Let your partner know that you want Chinese take out again, even though you had it last night.
Being honest with yourself and your own wants and needs doesn’t have to mean conflict or disrespect to others. Train yourself to communicate confidently and your relationships will flourish.
Aggressive Communication: Bullying works… until it doesn’t
Jon was a successful corporate attorney who came to see me in therapy because his wife was at her wit’s end and threatening to divorce him unless he got help. He knew he had some problems in his life, most of which were interpersonal: in addition to his marriage being perpetually rocky, he frequently was in disputes with the partners at his firm and constantly in stressful disagreements with his sister about the state of his parent’s estate.
But to Jon, all these problems were external, the result of stressful circumstances, incompetence in other people, or sheer bad luck. It rarely, if ever, occurred to Jon that some of his problems could be the result of his own choices and actions.
Jon didn’t see it this way, but he was a bully, and had been all his life. He was savvy enough to never be so abusive that he lost a job or got arrested. But the fact was, he was mean and aggressive with people in order to get what he wanted.
He once told his law partner that “If you just half the work ethic I do we’d be making twice the profit that we are now.”
Being aggressive toward other people can get you what you want in the short-term, but you end up losing the most important things in the long run.
Aggressive communication is when you express your own wants and needs without regard for the rights and preferences of others.
Importantly, aggression is usually not the result of pure malice or a psychopathic lack of empathy; instead, it’s a reaction to fear and insecurity.
Despite how it appears on the surface, anger is actually a positive emotion in the sense that it feels good to be angry. When we’re angry, the underlying assessment is that someone or something is wrong, and by extension, we’re right. This boosts our ego.
People with a chronically aggressive communication style have learned to use anger and aggression as a way to deal with their insecurities and fears. Unfortunately, because it’s so harmful to others, they end up even more insecure and fearful that when they started because all of their relationships are strained.
The key to working through an aggressive communication style is self-awareness. Specifically, you must begin to notice the initial fear and helplessness that precedes anger and cultivate healthier ways to address it.
Aggressive communication doesn’t mean someone is evil or callous. Like all bullies, it means they’re afraid and don’t know how to help themselves. And the best way to help yourself or someone else with an aggressive communication style is to do things that you can be proud of in a healthy way. Help someone out with a small task, volunteer your time, share your fears in small ways.
When you build the confidence to acknowledge your fears, you won’t need aggression to cover them up.
Passive-Aggressive Communication: Stuck between fear and anger
Simon came to see me in therapy because his girlfriend of 5 years had left him recently and he was feeling depressed. And while his grief and depression were obvious, what I noticed almost immediately—and what he couldn’t seem to acknowledge—was how angry he was.
He explained that he felt sad and depressed, but he spent most of our sessions describing all manner of frustrations and spats with his former girlfriend. When I asked him about how he addressed these frustrations with his girlfriend, it was clear that he simply didn’t address them, not directly anyway. Instead, he frequently resorted to sarcastic “jokes” and off-handed remarks to express his dissatisfaction.
His conflict resolution strategy—if you could call it that—was extremely indirect. Once, after his girlfriend hurt his feelings, he explained how he decided to give her “the silent treatment” for three straight days to show her how much she hurt him.
The passive-aggressive person is too afraid to be honest and too angry to be quiet, so they resort to veiled threats and sarcastic humor to express themselves.
Passive-aggressive communication is when you’re too angry to keep quiet and too afraid to be honest.
Recall that passive communication involves being overly deferential to other people and dishonest with yourself, whereas aggressive communication is the opposite, being honest about your own wishes but in a way that’s disrespectful to others. The third toxic form of communication, passive-aggressive, is the worst of both worlds: dishonest to yourself and disrespectful to others.
The key to working undoing a passive-aggressive communication style is to address both your anger and fears in more productive ways.
The most practical thing you can do to eliminate passive-aggressive communication is to simply stop using sarcasm. Sarcasm is a crutch that prevents us from speaking our minds honestly and directly, and at the same time, an instrument for trying to make others do what we want.
It’s not necessarily easy, but cut the sarcasm out of your life and your relationships will improve dramatically.
Assertive Communication: Honesty + Respect
The three toxic communication styles—passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive—never work in the long-run. While each gives a fleeting benefit initially, they end up leading to broken relationships, poor self-esteem, and ultimately, loneliness.
If you can’t connect with other people in an honest and respectful way, you’ve never going to have satisfying relationships.
Assertive communication means having the courage to speak your mind and express your wants, and to do it in a way that’s respectful of others:
- Actually, I’d rather not go to the party this evening and prefer to just stay in.
- What you said in the meeting this morning really hurt. Please don’t call me out like that in public again.
- It really bothers me when you discuss details of our relationship with your mother. Can we talk about a better way?
Happy relationships are built on trust. And trust is built on honesty and respect—both of which come from the ability to communicate assertively.